Japanese Grammar

How to Express Difficulty and Possibility …やすい, …にくい, …かねる, and …得る


Last time, you learned how to express partial negation and double negative, e.g. “かならずしもかんむずかしいわけじゃない (Kanji is not always difficult),” and “べんきょうしないことはない (I will perhaps study).” Then, if you would like to say, “Kanji is difficult to memorize,” how should you say it? In this lesson, you will learn how to express difficulty and possibility.

Explanation for the Usage of …やすい, …にくい, …かねる, and …得る

Table of Contents
Expressing Difficulty
Expressing Impossibility
Expressing Possibility

We will introduce you to four sentence patterns with relative expressions here. Don’t worry. They conjugate in the same way, which is to connect with the polite form instead of です. That’s very simple, isn’t it? Now, let’s learn what they can express.

Expressing Difficulty

Stem of Verbs + やすい: Easy to Do

ひらがなは おぼえやすい(です)
Topic / Subject Verb + やすい
Hiragana is easy to memorize.

The origin of やすい comes from the word “やすい: easy.” By attaching やすい, you express “easy to do” in Japanese. Volitional verbs should be used here. After the conjugation, you need to treat it as an i-adjective.

This book is easy to read.
きゅうのルールはわかりやすくない / ありません)ね。
The rules of baseball are not easy to understand, aren’t they?
なかさんははなしやすいひと(だ / です)。
Tanaka-san is a person who is easy to talk to.

If verbs are non-volitional ones, you express frequency is high.

As for June, it often rains.
As for snow days, traffic accidents often happen.

Stem of Verbs + にくい: Difficult to Do

かん おぼえにくい(です)
Topic / Subject Verb + にくい
Kanji are difficult to memorize.

This is the antonym of “Verb + やすい” and indicates “difficult to do” by attaching にくい with volitional verbs.  When you want to express a person who feels difficulty like “it’s difficult for me” in English, you use the particle に which is often used with は. Note: If you use にくい with non-volitional verbs, you express frequency or attributes (*the third example).

Whisky is hard for me to drink.
In Japanese, there are a lot of names which are hard to pronounce.
あめりにくいいき(だ / です)。
It’s a region where it rarely rains.

There are similar expressions. づらい, which comes from “つらい: bitter,” is used with volitional verbs and indicates “emotionally difficult to do.” For the sake of simplicity, you can consider that you can use づらい when you feel bitter or painful with the actions.

It’s hard to give advice to [your] boss.
[I] have pain in [my] foot and it’s tough to run.

がたい is used with volitional verbs when you are willing to do something, but it’s situationally difficult to do so. This may sound more formal and be less often used than the other two. 

It’s difficult for me to say that the project succeeded.
It’s hard to accept Ichiro’s retirement.


Expressing Impossibility

Stem of Verbs + かねる: Impossible to Do Despite of Your Will 

わたし そのけんかんしては 担当たんとうしかね(る / ます)
Topic Target + Contrast Verb + かねる
Regarding that matter, I cannot be in charge of [it].

The function is to express that you emotionally want to do something, but it’s impossible to do so because of external, unavoidable situations. One important point here is that “Verb + かねる” should be treated as a verb. Thus, you need to further conjugate it to express progressive tense, past tense, etc. Since かねる expresses you emotionally want to do, it’s often used to decline something in formal situations.

[I] am very sorry, but I alone cannot deal with that.
Because [I] cannot understand [it], [I] will call another person.

If you attach ようがない instead of かねる, you express that it’s impossible to do something because there is no way to do so. When Japanese people use suru-verbs, they sometimes add の in between.

この問題もんだいむずかしく、解決かいけつ(の)しようがない / ありません)。
This problem is difficult and there is no way to solve it.
現在げんざいがくではたすけようがない / ありません)。
In the current medical science, there is no way to save [him/her].

Expressing Possibility

Stem of Verbs + る: Events Can Happen

人間にんげんせいむことは あり(る / ます)
Topic / Subject  + Nominalizer こと Verb +
It can happen that human beings will live on Mars.

The function is to express “events can happen.” 得る can be read as both “える” and “うる,” but when it comes to conjugation, it’s more common to use える like ありえます, ありえない, ありえれば, etc (*得る can be written in both kanji and hiragana).

だいさんかい大戦たいせんこりえる / えます)。
World War III can occur.
ベンチャーぎょう成功せいこうありえる / えます)。
Success of venture firms can happen.

You can also set animate things as a subject. The meaning will be “it’s possible that…” or “able to do.” However, since the formality is high, you can use 得る with animate subjects only in formal tone. You can reword them in neutral tone as follows.

(Formal) だれもががんなりえる / えます)。
Anyone can get cancer.
(Neutral) だれもががんになる能性のうせいある / あります)。
There is a possibility that anyone gets cancer.
(Formal) アインシュタインもすべてのなぞ解明かいめいしえなかった
Even Einstein was unable to solve all secrets.
(Neutral) アインシュタインもすべてのなぞ解明かいめいできなかった
Even Einstein was unable to solve all secrets.


  1. Stem of verbs + やすい expresses “easy to do.”
  2. Stem of verbs + にくい expresses “difficult to do.”
  3. Stem of verbs + づらい expresses “emotionally difficult to do.”
  4. Stem of verbs + がたい expresses “you are willing to do something, but it’s situationally difficult to do so”
  5. Stem of verbs + かねる expresses “you want to do something, but it’s impossible because of external, unavoidable situations.”
  6. Stem of verbs + ようがない expresses “impossible to do something because there is no way to do so.”
  7. Stem of verbs + 得る expresses “events can happen.”

Grammatically speaking, やすい and にくい should be introduced in the basic grammar section. They are not difficult, but frequently used in everyday life. However, there are some similar expressions with different nuances such as づらい and がたい. That’s why we introduce them together here. If you aim to be an advanced Japanese speaker, try to properly use them depending on the situation.

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